The Worldview Underlying White-European Culture Supremacism

Let's question our assumptions.

Posted Jun 21, 2020

White European culture has had the effect of, as I said in my prior post, a global cultural bomb, infusing our worldviews with its assumptions. So it is important to uncover its elements.

Cultural psychologist Anthony Marsella (2009) identified 10 basic assumptions of Western psychology, which undermine its generalizability because these assumptions are not culturally universal. These assumptions emerged from European Enlightenment culture a few centuries ago and represent what children in Western cultures are taught in school.

Individualism — The individual is the focus of attention. Causal determinants of behavior occur in an individual’s brain/mind so interventions are assumed to be needed at this level. In contrast, many societies have been collectivistic and consider the social context to have a greater bearing on individual behavior.

Reductionism — The world can be broken down into small, measurable units that can be controlled and experimented on. Many societies view the world more holistically, including seeing the person as a body-mind-spirit entity that must be addressed on all levels together (Katz, 2017).

Materialism — The focus is on studying what is visible. But many societies acknowledge the unmanifest, the great mysteries of life (Deloria, 2006).

Quantification/measurement — Only what’s measurable is meaningful or important.

Objectivity” — The assumption that the scientist or scholar takes up a “view from nowhere” to gain truth “objectively.” Psychology shows us this is an impossibility as everyone has implicit assumptions they bring to any situation. Many societies instead emphasize multiperspectivalism that includes taking the perspectives of nonhumans as well (Descola, 2013; Kohn, 2013).

Experiment-based empiricism — The gold standard for obtaining knowledge is a randomized, controlled experiment done in a lab. Most societies through time consider extensive personal (and embodied) experience and observation to be the way to learn to know something (Ingold, 2011).

Nomothetic laws — Bringing in a search for common laws in physics, psychologists often search for laws of human nature, disregarding cultural and individual differences.

Scientism — The belief that the scientific method (experiments) is the only way to know anything. Any other source for truth is suspect. Many in non-Westernized societies would have the opposite view.

Male dominance — Patriarchy has governed most civilized societies for some time, emphasizing the greater value of males and male accomplishments. In the emergence of European Enlightenment thinking, one of the reasons given for white male supremacy was that women, nature, and non-whites were considered “irrational” (Warren, 2000). Warren points out that the logic of (white male) domination was of white male superiority which justified subordination of everything else. Nonwhites were considered akin to weeds in need of being removed, domesticated, or improved.

Rationality — This is the emphasis on logico-mathematical intelligence (one of eight intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner, 1999). It is linear, cause-effect, logical, material understanding of phenomena, generally using two-fold logic (something is or is not in a category). Non-Westernized societies use a more holistic way of understanding phenomena.

We can add several additional assumptions or metaphors from C.A. Bowers (2003).

Rene Descartes is most famously associated with several of these notions, plus others, though they emerged from multiple scholars (Merchant, 1983).

The idea of mechanism took fire in France and transferred to England from there. Doctors would do live vivisections of animals, as did Descartes, to show the mechanical aspects of the animal’s body, saying that the animal’s cries were just evidence of the machine.

This is also an example of dualism: the splitting of humans from the rest of nature, mind/soul from body. Dualism then is related to the view that the rest of nature is dead or dumb (remember this included nonwhites).

Racism flavors many of these implicit assumptions about the world that are longstanding in the Western world. These assumptions are metaphors that contribute to worldview. Worldview is a causal factor that must be addressed if the symptoms (e.g., police killings of unarmed non-whites) are going to be eliminated.

All assumptions have been identified by eco-psychology, eco-socialism, and eco-feminism as misguided aspects of white European culture supremacism that have undermined cultural and ecological diversity (Kovel, 2002). They have been imposed generally on the rest of the world in recent centuries through colonization, imperialism, industrialization, and capitalism’s globalization.

One particularly destructive assumption driving ecological disasters everywhere is the supremacy of economic health over all other forms of wealth (cultural, social, personal, ecological) (Korten, 2015). Shifting from treating animals like persons to treating them like commodities changes the perception of them to a subordinate entity—persons become things (Naveh & Bird-David, 2014).

Human dominance over the rest of nature has infected everyone now. It is only in recent centuries that the sacredness of a living Earth was discarded by the mechanistic, material, and measurement paradigms of science, technology, and government in Europe (Merchant, 1983). But the idea that the rest of nature is inert and dumb is still part of how government and corporate entities treat the nonhuman world.

The spread of disease is one result. For example, there used to be billions of passenger pigeons in the USA who clouded the skies for hours, if not days. Considered nuisances by some and delicacies by others, they were exterminated by human actions. As a result, the pigeons’ major food source, the white-footed mouse, became a nuisance to human beings, carrying ticks that carry Lyme and other diseases previously kept away from human communities. Encroachment on other animals’ habitats is linked to plagues and pandemics.

All the aforementioned assumptions at some point or another have been considered necessary for the progress of the last centuries. Thomas Berry (2006) pointed out the empty pledges of technological progress—that for generations there have been promises of a wonderland but instead the Earth has become a wasteland. Now may be the opportunity to change direction.

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References

Berry, T. (2006). The dream of the Earth. Berkeley, Ca.: Counterpoint.

Bowers, C.A. (2003). Mindful conservatism: Rethinking the ideological and educational basis of an ecologically sustainable future. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Deloria, V. (2006). The world we used to live in. Golden, Co: Fulcrum Publishing.

Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture (J. Lloyd, trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gardner, Howard (1999). Intelligence Reframed. Multiple intelligences for the 21st century, New York: Basic Books.

Ingold, T. (2011). The perception of the environment: Essay on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.

Katz, R. (2017). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the First Peoples. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley and LA: University of California Press.

Korten, D. (2015) Change the story, change the future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kovel, J. (2002). The enemy of nature: The end of capitalism or the end of the world? London: Zed Books Ltd.

Marsella, A.J. (2009). Some reflections on potential abuses of psychology’s knowledge and practices. Psychological Studies 1, 13-15: (Journal of the National Academy of Psychology – India).

Merchant, C. (1983). The death of nature: Women, ecology and the scientific revolution. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Naveh, D. & Bird-David, N. (2014).  How persons become things: Economic and epistemological changes among Nayaka hunter-gatherers. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 20, 74-92.

Warren, K.J. (2000). Ecofeminist philosophy: A western perspective on what it is and why it matters. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.